A Blessed Boy
Isaac Newton, the man who more than any other has shaped modern perceptions of the world, was born at 2 a.m. on the morning of Christmas Day, 1642, outside an obscure village in Lincolnshire from a family of undistinguished yeoman stock. He was a premature and sickly infant. Two women from the household were sent to collect certain items for the child but "they sate down on a stile by the way & said there was no occasion for making haste for they were sure the child would be dead before they could get back." At a later date Newton informed a relative that "he had been told that when he was born he was so little they could put him into a quart pot & so weakly that he was forced to have a bolster all round his neck to keep it on his shoulders."
Yet the omens were good. A birth on Christmas Day, with its obvious connection to the Saviour, was considered to be blessed. Such a birthday was deemed to be the harbinger of great success in the world. Isaac Newton was an only child. His father had died four months before the son was born, and so the omens were good in another sense: a posthumous child was commonly believed to be the recipient of good fortune. In his adult life Newton considered himself to be unique among men, and the circumstances of his arrival in the world must have encouraged that notion. His survival was considered by him to be a miracle, a harbinger of the other miracles he would perform.
He was born in a small house in the manor of Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth. An eighteenth-century drawing shows it to be a solid if undistinguished two-storey house of the English type. The drawing also contains a cow, a horse, and a peasant with his cart, depicting in miniature the rural world in which Newton grew up. The house itself was constructed from the grey limestone of the vicinity and included a kitchen, hall, parlour and upstairs bedrooms. The modern visitor will note that the rooms have low ceilings and stone floors, adding to the generally sober if not exactly sombre atmosphere of the dwelling. Newton was born in the bedroom immediately to the left of the staircase.
The house stands on the side of a small valley made by the River Witham, facing west, and looks over the garden that has become celebrated in world history as the site of Newton's falling apple. The tree itself was long ago felled by the wind. The "manor" consisted of some hundred acres (31.5 hectares) of woods and fields, a patrimony that Newton would one day inherit. William Stukeley, the eighteenth-century topographer, antiquarian and Newtonian enthusiast who collected all the material on his hero that he could find, described the landscape as one of "very delightful" valleys and "plentiful" woods. He added that the "springs and rivulets of the purest water abound" and that the air of the neighbourhood "is exceedingly good." This was the area that produced "the greatest genius of the human race."
The ancestry of his immediate family gave no inkling of this greatness. Newton could trace his predecessors only as far back as John Newton, who had lived a century before in the village of Westby just a few miles from Woolsthorpe. The Newtons were husbandmen of Lincolnshire stock who by degrees rose painfully slowly in the social hierarchy of the county and had by Newton's time reached the eminence of yeomen. When on occasions we observe the taciturnity and even surliness of Newton, we may recognise the habits of Lincolnshire farming stock.
His own father, also named Isaac Newton, has no great claim to the attention of posterity. He was a yeoman farmer who looked after the estate and had a certain proprietorial care for the tenants who lived in the small cottages within his domain. He left some five hundred pounds in his will, proving that he had maintained the relative affluence of the family. All the evidence suggests, however, that he could not write his name, like the father of William Shakespeare, thus adding to the myth of genius born in the most unpromising circumstances. Newton's uncle and cousin were also both illiterate. It would have been perfectly possible that, in marginally different circumstances, Isaac Newton himself would never have learned how to read or write.
The family of his mother, Hannah Ayscough, was more genteel in its aspirations. It is the usual familial chemistry of male children who go on to distinguish themselves. Hannah's brother was a clergyman who had studied at Cambridge University. He could not have been very successful in his vocation, however, since he was immured in a rectory only two miles away from Woolsthorpe itself. The Ayscoughs, originally from Rutland, were in fact in a state of sliding gentility. The marriage of Isaac and Hannah reflects their meeting with rural stock on its way up. Isaac Newton was the result.
He was baptized on the first day of the new year, 1643, in the family church at nearby Colsterworth. The widowed mother naturally gave the infant her spouse's name of Isaac. The name itself comes from the Hebrew for "one who laughs," but the young child could have felt little cause for rejoicing. Just three years after his birth, his mother decided to marry again and separate herself from the infant child. She was betrothed to a neighbouring rector, Barnabas Smith, more than thirty years her senior. The Reverend Smith had no very Christian notion of his stepson, however, and as part of the marriage agreement it was stipulated that the young Newton would remain at Woolsthorpe under the care of his maternal grandmother. Hannah would depart to Smith's rectory in North Witham, some mile and a half away. A relative recalled later that Smith gave Newton "a parcel of Land, being one of the terms insisted on by the widow if she married him." Smith also agreed to have the manor house at Woolsthorpe repaired and renovated. It seems to have been altogether a businesslike arrangement, and this was not an age in which the susceptibilities of young children were much considered.
So for the next eight years Newton was reared by his grandmother, Margery Ayscough. There is no mention of his paternal grandfather in this context, so it must be assumed that he played no part in the new domestic arrangements. It was an affluent and respectable household, but his mother's absence necessarily had a profound effect upon the young child. It would have been natural for him to have experienced a sense of abandonment, perhaps even of unworthiness. In adult life he manifested great insecurity and an inordinate fear of emotional contact with other human beings; he was also suspicious and secretive, with a great desire for order and security in all aspects of his life. He also had the capacity for great anger and aggression. These are perhaps the marks of one who had once been deeply hurt.
Whatever the truth of his psychology, there can be no doubt that he was a lonely child. He was brought up in a farmhouse some distance from any village, and he would have been prohibited by his grandmother from playing with any of the "common" children of the cottagers. He was, in other words, thrown back upon his own resources. In later life he was well known for his isolation as well as for his self-sufficiency, characteristics that he acquired at an early stage. It is often said that brilliant mathematicians tend to have solitary childhoods, in which they can explore the visionary world of numbers.
There are only two recollections of this otherwise obscure period in Newton's life. He recalled that his grandmother had claimed the family's affinity with a baronet, perhaps the context for Newton's subsequent aspiration towards gentlemanly status. And in a notebook compiled at a later date he confessed to the sin of "threatning my father and mother Smith to burne them and the house over them." The date of this terrible threat is not known but, to gain its full effect, it must have occurred when Barnabas Smith still lived. Such was the ferocious anger of the young boy abandoned and betrayed. It is significant, too, that he did not forget his anger.
And then, quite unexpectedly, his mother returned. Barnabas Smith died after eight years of marriage, and the twice widowed Hannah came back to the family home with three small children. The advent of a half-brother and two half-sisters may not have been greeted by Newton with overwhelming joy. Barnabas Smith left nothing to Newton in his will, but the boy did receive the pastor's library of two hundred books and a large "commonplace book" in which Newton was to write down many of his early experiments and speculations. He called it his "waste book."
He enjoyed his mother's unfamiliar company for only two years, however, since in 1655 at the age of twelve he was despatched to the grammar school in the neighbouring town of Grantham. It was only seven miles away but the distance, in the intellectual history of Isaac Newton, was much greater. He was lodged with a local apothecary, Mr. Clarke, whose house and shop were on the high street of the town, beside the George Inn. It was a busier, and noisier, milieu than any he had before encountered. The apothecary was the brother of the usher at the grammar school, so he may have "taken in" schoolboy lodgers as part of his income. Clarke himself may have been responsible for Newton's early interest in chemical experiment. In his notebook the young Newton began to transcribe recipes and cures acquired from the books that Clarke kept around him. Newton slept in a garret room, probably with one of Clarke's own children, and he carved his name on the walls as well as leaving drawings of birds and ships, circles and triangles.
Even the doodles of Newton have significance. At some point he drew portraits of John Donne and Charles I. His reasons for memorialising the poet are not easy to guess, but it might seem that he had some sympathy with the executed king. It should not be forgotten that the years of his childhood were the years of the Civil War and the Protectorate, but it would be foolish to speculate about the schoolboy's political sympathies. He was a royalist by necessity at the time of the revived monarchy, but there was also a strong spirit of dissent (even Puritanism) in his religious sensibility.
It is possible that he had learned the rudiments of reading and spelling at one of the "dame" schools in the local villages of Skillington and Stoke Rochford, but the Free Grammar School of Edward VI in Grantham offered him his introduction to the world of classical letters. In particular he was taught how to read and write in the Latin language, an indispensable prelude to any scholastic achievement and a necessary accomplishment for any man of learning. Without Latin, the adult Newton would not have been able to reach a European audience. He also acquired a working knowledge of Greek, and was systematically instructed in the Scriptures. Since the books he acquired from Barnabas Smith were largely theological in intent, it is possible that his biblical knowledge was already extensive. Common sense would suggest that he devoured whatever volumes were to hand. At school he was trained in handwriting, employing the correct "secretary" hand, and may even have been given rudimentary lessons in mathematics.
Yet he was not necessarily precocious in the standard curriculum of the school. In his first year he was marked seventy-eighth out of a total of eighty pupils, and a later biographer has remarked that he "continued very negligent" in his lessons. Like many children of incipient genius, however, he may have considered those lessons to be unnecessary. Those who are busy in one realm of the mind and imagination may ignore all others as unimportant. Yet he did stand out from his childhood contemporaries in another sense. He was endlessly inventive. There are many anecdotes concerning Newton's youth and childhood; some of them are apocryphal, some are hagiographical in intent, and others are plainly incredible. It is important only to note that they accrued around Newton at a relatively early date; he was celebrated by his contemporaries, and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries he was considered a magus almost unrivalled. So the stories and legends grew.
An historian of Grantham, recounting the history of the town's most famous inhabitant, recorded young Newton's "strange inventions, and extraordinary inclination for mechanics." Instead of playing with the other boys he preferred to construct "knick-knacks and models of wood in many kinds," for which purpose "he had got little saws, hatchets, hammers, and a whole shop of tools." So he spent his time outside his lessons "knocking and hammering in his lodging room." It is a clear foretaste of his dexterity and ingenuity as a mechanic and technician in his own laboratory.
As a child he made a wooden clock, and a wooden mill based upon his observations of a new mill being built in Grantham itself. Within the wheel of the mill he placed a mouse, which made it revolve. The clock itself was powered by water, and was considered so reliable that "the family upon occasion would go to see what was the hour by it." From the beginning he was preoccupied with time and mechanism. This was nowhere more evident than in his creation of a sundial by calculating the sun's progress and by fixing pegs to the walls and roof of the apothecary's house. It was so exact that "any body knew what o'clock it was by Isaac's dial, as they ordinarily called it." He devised his own almanac, too, with its report of equinoxes and solstices. In much later life it was observed that he looked at shadows in order to tell the time of the day. As a child, too, he had discovered the connection between the measurement of time and the measurement of space.
It is said by the same local historian that his delight in mechanical ingenuity sometimes interfered with his more orthodox studies, and that duller boys were placed above him in the form. Nevertheless his capacity for learning was such that he could "outstrip them when he pleased." He did not altogether neglect boyish sports, however, and it is reported that he designed paper kites according to the correct mathematical proportions; he also created candle-lit paper lanterns which, when tied to the tails of the kites, impressed and frightened the local people as "comets." He had learned the power of enchantment as well as entertainment.
He also evinced a strongly practical and empirical streak, whereby his calculations and observations were turned into machines for use. William Stukeley observed of these childhood inventions that Newton manifested a "sagacious discernment of causes and effects" as well as an "invincible constancy and perseverance in finding out his solutions and demonstrations." It is perhaps too easy to find the child in the man, but there can be no doubt that from his school years he was a skilled artisan as well as calculator. A note by John Conduitt, a later relative by marriage, informs us that he had "carpenter's hands."
On the window ledge of the schoolroom in Grantham he left one memorial of his education. He carved, with a penknife, the words "I. Newton." At a later date he also recorded a few random incidents of his schooldays. In his obsessive list of sins compiled at the age of nineteen he recalls "putting a pin in John Keys hat on Thy day to prick him," "Stealing cherry cobs from Eduard Storey" and "denying that I did so" as well as "peevishness at Master Clarks for a piece of bread and butter." It is not clear what is most remarkable--his memory of such minor incidents or his belief that he had committed sin as a result of them. We can never overestimate the sensitivity of his conscience or his typically seventeenth-century sense of sinfulness.
Copyright © 2008 by Peter Ackroyd. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.